Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) are acids that have been derived from fruit or milk. They’ve been used for thousands of years as skin beneficial ingredients. In fact, Cleopatra is reported to have bathed in sour milk (full of lactic acid) to improve her skin. Today, you’ll find alpha hydroxy acids in range of skin care preparations where they are included to help improve a range of skin care conditions including dry skin, wrinkles, fine lines and skin discoloration.
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Widely Used Alpha Hydroxy Acids
Widely used alpha hydroxy acids include:
- Glycolic acid – derived from sugar cane
- Lactic acid – derived from milk
- Malic acid – derived from apples and pears
- Mandelic acid – derived from almonds
- Tartaric acid – derived from grapes
- Citric acid – derived from citrus fruits
The most well known alpha hydroxy acids are glycolic acid and lactic acid. Both acids can penetrate skin well and are backed up by numerous clinical studies regarding their effectiveness. However, the use of other alpha hydroxy acids including malic and mandelic acid is becoming more widespread. Glycolic acid, while effective, may be problematic in darker skin types where instances of skin discoloration have occurred. Lactic acid and mandelic or malic acids seem to be better tolerated by more sensitive skin types.
How Do Alpha Hydroxy Acids Work?
Alpha hydroxy acids work mainly as exfoliants, causing dead skin cells in the epidermis or skin’s top layer, to separate from one another. The result is skin that sloughs off and can be removed easily allowing new skin cells to resurface. Studies have shown that alpha hydroxy acids may also encourage elastin and collagen production, two components that contribute to firm, smooth and toned skin. Skin benefits associated with alpha hydroxy acids include an improvement in wrinkles, skin roughness, skin discoloration and sun damage. Though benefits will be noticeable soon after use, best results are obtained over the course of several months.
Studies have shown alpha hydroxy acids to be most effective at concentrations above 8%. Concentrations above 15 – 20% are generally best left to be administered by qualified specialists because of side effects that may be associated with their use. And, they should also be formulated at a low ph in order for them to exert beneficial effect. Concentrations below 8% are a good way to gradually introduce an alpha hydroxy acid into your regimen, without over sensitizing skin. While cleansers and toners formulated with alpha hydroxy acids are certainly useful, you’ll get the most benefit from serums, creams and lotions because they remain on the skin longer.
Side Effects of Alpha Hydroxy Acids
Alpha hydroxy acids are acids, so there is the potential for skin irritation that may lead to redness, itchiness or pain. Alpha hydroxy acids also increase skin’s sensitivity to sunlight and therefore more prone to sunburn. For this reason, the use of a broad spectrum UVA/UVB blocking sunscreen while using any alpha hydroxy preparation is essential.
Individuals with medium to darker skin tones may also be at risk of scarring pigment changes with alpha hydroxy acids. Certain alpha hydroxy acids, including lactic, malic and mandelic acids may be less problematic in these skin types.